Holly kept her eyes peeled as she drove along the main road that led through North Devon, her sister resting her head on the window, eyes closed. Which was not helpful, being as how Lily was supposed to be keeping Holly awake on the long drive from London to the little holiday cottage in the middle of bloody nowhere that their parents had rented for Christmas. And right now, Holly was flagging. Despite the cold, damp air, it was toasty warm inside her parents’ little Fiesta, the Christmas songs on the radio were now making her sleepy with their repetition, and her and Lily’s car game of Who Am I?
had long since been abandoned.
And what kind of main road was this, anyway? All these winding turns made it impossible to go safely above about forty miles an hour. All Holly wanted right now was a coffee, but there hadn’t been any sign of a petrol station for miles. It was beautiful down here, though, she’d give it that. There were hedgerows lining each side of the road, slightly bare at the moment but no doubt full of life in spring and summer, with fields stretching out eternally beyond them. Under the gray December sky, it looked brilliantly moody and almost ethereal.
At the next sign for the nearest village, Holly hung a right, causing Lily to sit up, blinking her eyes blearily. “What are you doing?”
“I need caffeine; I’m finding somewhere to stop.”
Lily wrinkled her nose, but that was the only sign of protest she made as they drove into the village. It was buzzing with life—more life than Holly would have expected. Maybe that was because it was Christmas Eve: Everyone was out doing their last-minute shopping here too, just like in London. There were Christmas lights hanging up on what Holly presumed was the high street and a giant Christmas tree stood on the green, opposite a clock tower. A mini version of Big Ben, Holly thought, snorting quietly to herself.
When she saw a café, just past the clock, she flicked the indicator and swung over to park on the road outside it, earning a beep from the car behind her.
Lily frowned. “You can’t stop here—there’s no parking.”
“I’m not going to last the remaining forty-five minutes without caffeine,” Holly said, by way of contradiction.
“You wanted to drive all the way,” Lily pointed out.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to drive; I’m saying I need a coffee. Besides,” she added, “you can’t drive, in your condition.” She patted Lily’s tiny baby bump, which was only just beginning to show.
“I’m pregnant, not an invalid,” Lily muttered.
“Can’t you be both?” Holly asked sweetly, and Lily hit her lightly on the arm.
“Be nice. I’m funding this.”
“Only until I pay you back.” Not that she was totally sure how she was going to do that. She’d forgotten her bank card, leaving the house in a last-minute rush, because she never learned,
according to Lily. But really, that was beside the point. She couldn’t afford this family trip. After two years of trying and failing to make money as an artist—something she’d wrongly thought would be straightforward, since she’d graduated from one of the best universities for art in the country—she’d caved and got her PGCE, qualifying as a teacher and earning a nod of approval from her parents and sensible sister. However, until she actually got a teaching job, she was back to living with her parents, and living off their goodwill.
“You can’t park here,” Lily was saying again, barely holding back a long-suffering sigh. “Your front tire is on a double yellow.”
“Oh no one will notice that, come on.”
“Holly,” Lily said firmly, using her responsible “big sister” voice. But Holly switched off the engine.
“Come on, we’ll only be two minutes. Plus, look at how Christmassy this place is!”
And it was—there was a blackboard outside with the Christmas specials, including a delicious-sounding camembert and cranberry sandwich, with a hand-drawn chalk snowman to the side of the menu. Mistletoe hung above the entrance, and the windows were decorated with silver tinsel. Fairy lights were draped around the low thatched roof, giving the place a delightfully rustic appearance: somewhere you’d want to curl up with a hot chocolate and a good book. Christmas had always been one of Holly’s favorite times of year—perhaps because she’d felt the need to live up to her Christmassy name—but the Christmassy vibes weren’t the reason Holly was feeling increasingly drawn to the coffee shop. Quite aside from wanting to get her coffee and be done with it, she was now intrigued by the name of the place: Impression Sunrise Café. It had to be a nod to Monet’s famous painting, and any coffee shop named after a piece of art had to be good.
Relenting, Lily got out of the car and followed Holly onto the pavement, sticking her hands in her coat pockets as she walked and making Holly wish she’d grabbed her coat from the trunk. Side by side, they looked so similar they could almost be twins, even with the six-year age gap between them. It was the red hair that did it—twin little redheads. Holly’s hair was wilder than Lily’s, though that was probably because Lily tamed hers religiously with all kinds of fancy products, whereas the most Holly ever did was stick it in a bun when it annoyed her. I’m owning my wild mane of red,
she’d said when Lily tried to get her to brush and straighten it before leaving today. I’m like Ariel in
The Little Mermaid. Not all redheads can be Ariel,
Lily had said with a sigh—no doubt because both of them had been subjected to more than enough Ariel comments while growing up. And anyway, Ariel brushes her hair. She’s literally always brushing it with a fork or whatever. Well, like you said, not all redheads can be Ariel.
But it wasn’t only the hair. They had the same cheekbones, same pointy jaw, same arched eyebrows (even without plucking them obsessively like Lily did). Only their eyes were different—Lily’s were brown, whereas Holly’s were a bold green.
Holly pushed through the café door without really concentrating on what she was doing because she was distracted by an absolutely gorgeous painting hanging inside the doorway, the kind of art that demanded your instant attention. It was a rainforest, depicted in a way she’d never seen before—bold and abstract, with vibrant colors that shouted life. She wanted it. That was her first thought. She wanted to hang it opposite her bed so she could wake up to it every morning and take in some of its vibrant energy. Her second thought was that she’d been right about the café—not just an arty name but real art inside and that was—
Her second thought was cut off as she slammed straight into an alarmingly solid chest. She noticed the crisp smell of a freshly washed and ironed shirt, along with a darker, woody scent, before heat seared down her arm. She yelped and yanked her arm back.
She swore, loudly, at the same time as a deep voice said, “Jesus Christ!” Something heavy thumped to the ground, along with two takeaway coffees.
Holly shoved back from the stranger, which caused her to slip on the liquid that was now coating the wooden floor, flailing her arms in the air but then catching herself, just managing to stay upright. She swept her hair back in one angry motion before looking up into the man’s face. And Jesus, that face.
She wanted to sculpt that face. Bring it to life with clay, capture the impressive contours of it, the sharp jawline, the dark eyes, the nose that was slightly off-center in a way that made it all the more perfect.
But hot embarrassment was curling in her veins. “What the hell!” she shouted, causing a few people to look over at her, including the woman behind the counter, who was peering over the metal jug of milk she was frothing. “You could have burned me!” It was only her sweater—a Christmas one, black with sequined writing on the front saying let Christmas BeGin—that had protected her skin from the scalding coffee.
“Are you kidding?” the man exclaimed. “You’re the one that walked into me! Try looking where you’re going, why don’t you?” That impressive face tightened as he sucked in a breath, looking down at the mess on the floor, where two coffees—one milky, one black—were definitely beyond rescue. His briefcase was also there, one of the clasps sprung open. A briefcase, really? Who carried a briefcase around on Christmas Eve? He was wearing a suit, too—a suit that fitted him perfectly, she couldn’t help but notice.
Holly scowled and opened her mouth to snap back, an automatic response, but felt a light hand on her arm. She glanced at Lily, who was giving her a look.
A look she’d seen many times before.
Copyright © 2023 by Emily Stone. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.